Pete Seeger at Farm Aid
Photo Courtesy of Ebet Roberts

"Oh, but ain't that America, for you and me!" sang John Mellencamp on "Pink Houses" at Farm Aid 2013, the annual benefit for America's family farmers, staged Sept. 21 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, in Saratoga Springs, New York.

"That song," he explained, "was inspired by people who had come before me, that were trying to make a difference with music."  Specifically, said Mellencamp, he had been thinking of Woody Guthrie's anthem "This Land Is Your Land."

"I'm so humbled," he continued, "to bring out the guy who really made that song what it is… Ladies and gentlemen, Pete Seeger!"

A surprise guest, Seeger, 94, walked out to an extended roar from the sold-out crowd of 25,000. It was a heartfelt welcome for a man who has shaped American music and culture for decades—much like the founder of Farm Aid, Willie Nelson.  The circle remains unbroken, indeed.

"Friends," began Seeger, horsely, "at 94, I don't have much of a voice left. But here's a song I think you know. And if you sing it, why, we'll make a good sound."

After a solo round on his banjo for "If I Had A Hammer" -- with thousands of backup singers -- Seeger welcomed Farm Aid's guiding foursome: Nelson, Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews for "This Land Is Your Land."

Seeger's compatriots smiled with glee as they shared the stage with the aging but energetic singer, who declared, "I've got a verse you've never heard before."

"New York is my home
New York is your home
From the upstate mountains
Down to the ocean foam
With all kinds of people
Yes, we're polychrome
New York was meant to be frack free!"

Seeger's musical protest about pending plans to allow hydro-fracking in New York State drew further roars of approval of the crowd and was consistent with the tone of this year's Farm Aid. 

Neil Young, a year after playing Farm Aid 2012 accompanied by the electric fury of Crazy Horse, was no less intense in a remarkable solo set of covers including Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain," Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," and Phil Och's "Changes." 

And Young drove home the link between Farm Aid's efforts and the fight against global warming.

"The farmers are on the front lines of climate change, and climate change is THE issue of the 21st century," said Young at a press conference which opened the day-long event.  "It's a bigger way of looking at what we're all doing here.  It's about getting the carbon out of the sky and back into the earth."

Willie Nelson, aboard his biodiesel-fueled bus parked backstage during the show, reflected on the change that Farm Aid has seen since it began in 1985, prompted by the farm foreclosure crisis.

It helps "if you keeping hitting them [with a message] on the same spot for 28 years," Nelson quipped, rapping the table by his couch.  

"But it's much, much easier [now] because people are spreading the word for us. It's amazing what you can do here," he said, tapping the top of his laptop. "A lot more than you can do on any network anywhere."

Farm Aid 2013 offered its strongest mobile and social presence yet. A Twitter campaign with the hashtag #Road2FarmAid began weeks before the event. And a mobile app developed by Aloompa allowed fans to keep track, among other things, of both the artist lineup and the activities and workshops in the Homegrown Village that accompanies each Farm Aid.  (In an alphabetical list on the app, the set by Neil Young could be found right between the workshops for Mushrooms 101 and Pancakes 101).

Before Jack Johnson took the stage for his eagerly awaited afternoon set, the chart-topping singer took a tour of the activities at Homegrown Village—dressed as a cow.  Accompanied by Mugar, he greeted unsuspecting fans, patting one young boy on the head with his hoof.

Johnson, who was making his second Farm Aid appearance, discussed how he had been drawn in to the work of Farm Aid and how he and his wife, Kim, a former school teacher, had created the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation to advance environmental education.

After nearly 30 years, Farm Aid concerts have the feel of a family picnic, writ large. After opening sets by the Blackwood Quartet, Jesse Lenat, and the sultry Sasha Dobson, Insects vs. Robots took the stage, with Micah Nelson, of two of Willie Nelson's sons on the days bill.  Lukas Nelson fronted Promise of the Real, and frequently accompanied his father. Pegi Young & the Survivors played a set early in the day, followed soon afterward by Carlene Carter, introduced appropriately as "country music royalty." Jamey Johnson played dark, gothic, country rock as an inheritor of Willie Nelson's country outlaw tradition. Toad the Wet Sprocket introduced their first single in 16 years. Amos Lee, a red Farm Aid cap cocked sideways on his head, curly head of hair, performed his soulful cover of "A Change Is Gonna Come."

And Kacey Musgraves, fresh from her six CMA nominations, charmed the crowd with favorites like "Merry Go 'Round."

For Jack Johnson's set of lilting, then driving pop, Farm Aid's stage backdrops of farm scenes gave way to apt images of Hawaiian waves and sunsets. This was the opening of a tour for Johnson in support of his new album "From Here To Now To You" which is expected to debut at No. 1 this week on the Hot 100.

Dave Matthews declared "I love this building" as he took the Saratoga Performing Arts Center stage. The Dave Matthews Band are regulars on the SPAC summer schedule.  But for Farm Aid, Matthews and and Tim Reynolds proved their dual guitar pyrotechnics could produce as much energy and sonic power as a full band.

Mellencamp, backed by a six piece band, flexed musical muscles through a run of his hits, from "Jack and Diane" and "Small Town" to the apt "Blood on the Scarecrow" and "Pink Houses."   

After Young's inspired acoustic set, Nelson closed the night with classics like "Whiskey River," "Crazy" and "Night Life," before calling out all hands for the traditional finale of "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."

Backstage, meanwhile, Seeger captivated visitors with his storytelling. Like Nelson, he has founded a music-rooted organization of social activism that has thrived for decades: the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, which has offered environmental education since 1969.

Seeger said he came to Farm Aid because, remarkably, he and Nelson had never previously met or shared a stage, he said.   

And he recognized the common thread between Farm Aid and his Clearwater sloop.  

"It's all these relatively little things," he said, "which are going to save the human race."